Truthtelling: The Ethics of Negotiation

“Is it ethical for a police hostage negotiator to promise to the hostage taker whatever his demands are, even if there is no intent to meet those demands?” I was shocked to hear this question from a Senator investigating the Manila Hostage Crisis. “What if,” the senator went on, “the hostage taker appears to have some mental issues and we need to save the hostages. Shouldn’t we just lie to him so that he lets the hostages go? Then we can arrest him and say, ‘Sorry, we did it for your own good’” (paraphrased).

It reminds me of a story I heard about comparative religion during my University days in Saskatoon. Two boys are in a house playing. The father, who is outside, sees that the house is on fire. He yells to his boys to get out of the house so they will be saved. One boy runs out immediately. The other, however, is enjoying playing so much that he ignores his father’s call. Finally, in desperation, the Father, appealing to his son’s love for fun calls out, “Come outside! There is a parade passing by!” Of course the boy runs out and is saved from the fire. What disturbs me about the story is the lie.

A lie is the opposite of trust. Why did the boy trust the father enough to come out when he said there was a parade? Because of trust. I can assure you, however, that once the boy realized his father had lied to him, a little bit of that trust was gone. Next time, the father wouldn’t be so lucky.

It goes the same for hostage negotiations. In reality, you are not just negotiating for the current crisis, you are also building trust for the next crises that come along. Otherwise, why will any subsequent hostage-taker even bother talking to negotiators?

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